13 Things to Do in and Around Blenheim

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Surrounded by fertile river plains framed by rugged hills and manicured vineyards, Blenheim is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand.

Maori have lived in the area since the 13th century (the Marlborough Museum collection includes local artifacts dated to around 1250 AD) and named it Waiharakeke, or flax stream. 

The early European settlers, however, originally called their small town “The Beaver” because the nearby rivers flooded so regularly. Mother Nature’s whims often have a silver lining, however: it turned out that those regular floods helped create the perfect conditions for growing grapes. 

That’s why Blenheim is now surrounded by vineyards filled with Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer vines, stretching for many kilometres down the Wairau and Awatere valleys.

Just over 20 minutes from the busy inter-island ferry port of Picton and less than an hour from the picturesque Marlborough Sounds, Blenheim’s a good place to base yourself during a trip to this part of the South Island, with loads to do in the area. Here are more than a dozen of the best options.

Step Back Into Aviation History at Omaka

Located at the local airfield, the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is an unremarkable name for an extraordinary collection full of World War One and Two aviation memorabilia, large chunks of which are owned by Sir Peter Jackson. 

Yes, that’s the Sir Peter Jackson of the Lord of the Rings, Hobbit, and Godzilla fame… and when decides to create a historical display, the sky’s the limit. Pun intended. 

The Knights of the Skies (WW1) and Dangerous Skies (WW2) exhibitions feature planes and artefacts in larger-than-life dioramas made by Weta Workshop, the wizards behind the special effects in many of Jackson’s movies.

These scenes take you back in time to some of the lesser-known people and places of the world wars. Did you know, for instance, that Russia’s 588th Night Bombers was an all-female regiment? Or that the Germans called them the Night Witches? 

And can you imagine what it was like to crash land on a remote Pacific Island? You’ll see these scenes and more, not to mention genuine WW1 and WW2 planes and personal items that once belonged to famous flying aces like The Red Baron.

It’s a remarkable place, and absolutely worth the ticket price ($39 per adult, $16/child, $99/family).

Take to the Skies

If all of those historic fighter planes got you inspired to do more than just look at them, why not go up in one instead? 

The Heritage Centre also operates joyrides in vintage planes, including a Boeing Stearman 3-seater biplane (one or two passengers sit in the front seats, with the pilot behind), a speedy Yakovlev Yak-3 that’s capable of acrobatic rolls if you’re up for it, or the faithfully-restored WW2 Avro Anson Mk 1, the last of its kind that’s still flying.

Cycle Through the Vineyards

Woman cycling through a vineyard

There are 37 wineries in the Blenheim area, so you could say you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to both picking a good wine and finding a delightful place for lunch. 

Many wineries, like Saint Clair Family Estate and Wither Hills, have cafes or restaurants as well as cellar doors and wine tasting. Others offer different experiences: Brancott Estate has falconry displays, for instance, while Hunter’s Wines includes an art gallery on site. 

Blenheim is the perfect place for a self-guided winery cycle tour, both because the flat terrain makes for easy cycling, and thanks to a well-defined route from nearby Renwick that mostly keeps you well away from busy roads.

A number of companies offer bike hire with a shuttle service from Blenheim, so there’s no need to drive. They’ll provide everything you need, from the bike and helmet to maps and advice on choosing a route around the nearby wineries. 

If you’re not into cycling, pick up a wine trail map from the i-site for a leisurely drive, or relax on a half or full day guided tour and let someone else be behind the wheel.

Eat Delicious Chocolate at Makana

Makana Confections has given the wineries’ cellar door idea a sweet twist by offering you a cellar door experience with delicious chocolate at their boutique factory. 

You’ll be able to watch the gourmet chocolates being made by hand and taste a few samples, before wandering through to the shop to buy some of your favourites.  

Stroll Through Parks and Gardens (You’ve Got Plenty of Choice!)

Sheep grazing at Wither Hills, overlooking town of Blenheim

Locals and visitors are spoilt for choice when looking for beautiful parks and gardens in Blenheim, with a wide range of options for a town of its size.

Wither Hills Farm Park

Wither Hills Farm Park might be only 5km from Blenheim’s CBD, but it’s a world away from the busy town full of cars and shops. 

Although it’s a working farm, so yes, you’ll see sheep and cows, Wither Hills is owned by the Marlborough District Council and is set up like a park. It has a children’s playground, toilets in several locations, and more than 60km of tracks perfect for walking and mountain biking. 

Wander along the base of the hills for an easy trek, or if you’re feeling fit, climb up to the top to admire the beautiful views that stretch all the way from Cloudy Bay to the Wairau Valley and Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku in the Awatere Valley. 

Upton Oaks Garden

When Dave and Sue Monaghan start a project, they don’t do things by halves. So, when they bought a dilapidated villa in 1987, they began a bespoke furniture business, renovated the villa, and started developing a spectacular garden. 

Fast forward 35 years, and Upton Oaks’ beautiful Victorian-style garden is recognised as a Garden of National Significance. The Rose Walk, Knot Garden, Vegetable Patch, Cottage Garden, and more are absolutely stunning, and if you love gardening, they’re a treasure not to be missed.

Note that they’re only open for viewing by appointment, so contact Sue (03 579 3316 or [email protected]) to arrange your visit.

Harling Park

On the other side of town, Harling Park isn’t far from Upton Oaks, but it’s a very different proposition. Built as a sister-city project with Tendo and Otari in Japan, Harling Park is still a work in progress. Still, you can already see the Japanese theme in its water gardens, sculptures, paths, and benches where you can sit and think or admire the views. 

There are plenty of open spaces for picnicking and games, and walking access to Wither Hills Farm Park on one side. 

Brayshaw Park

Brayshaw is the place to go if you love digging into history. The park is home to model trains, the local vintage car club, and farm and agricultural machinery, as well as the Marlborough Museum and Beaverton, a recreated historic street with everything as it would have been in Blenheim’s settler days.

The park is used for various annual events, including the Marlborough Heritage Day on February 6th. Brayshaw Park is connected to Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre by the Riverside Railway, and a steam train runs on the narrow gauge track on regular open days during the season. If you’re a train enthusiast, you’ll love the collection of locomotives, railcars, carriages, and more. 

Take a Trip to Picton

View towards the docks in Picton, New Zealand

Blenheim isn’t on the coast, but it’s not far from places that are.

Half an hour’s drive up State Highway One is Picton. Many years ago, this was a sleepy little seaside town, but that was before the maritime authorities decided to relocate the inter-island ferry services. Now the Bluebridge and Interislander ferries sail in and out of Picton day and night, making the port a hectic spot.

You don’t have to go far from the ferries to find a quiet place to eat some fish and chips on the seafront, though. A short walk takes you onto the main street with a good selection of bars and cafes, along with several specialty shops.

If you feel like strolling further away from the crowds, go across the walking bridge to the marina, veer left around the waterfront to Shelley Beach, and then continue on the lower of the two marked tracks to Bob’s Bay. These are two beautiful little beaches, and you’re unlikely to be there entirely by yourself on a fine day.

If you’ve got a bit more time, the Edwin Fox Ship and Visitor Centre is a must if you’re into old sailing ships. The Edwin Fox is the ninth-oldest surviving ship in the world, and had a colourful life as a trader and a troopship before carrying settlers between England, Australia, and New Zealand. 

EcoWorld is the well-known little aquarium on the Picton foreshore. While you can stroll in at any point during opening hours, it’s worthwhile timing your visit for feeding times (11am and 2pm) if you can.

If you’d like to get to know the aquarium’s land and sea creatures even better, book yourself in for a Close Encounters tour as well. These guided tours for up to 14 people take you behind the scenes to the rehabilitation and breeding centres, and up close to tuatara, kakariki (native parakeets), turtles, and more.

Visit the Marlborough Sounds

Picton is one of several accessible entrances to the magnificent Marlborough Sounds, one of the most beautiful parts of a country that’s not short on stunning scenery. It’s well worth getting out on the water to really make the most of your time there, and you’ve got plenty of choices about how to do it.

E-ko Dolphin Tours 

Dolphin in Queen Charlotte Sound

E-Ko Cruises offers a few different dolphin encounter tours. All of them let you see dolphins cruising and playing (with a 90% success rate, no less), and one of them also gives the option of swimming with them when conditions allow.

Whether you’re hanging out with the dolphins or not, you’ll get to see plenty of other sea life on an E-ko tour: gannets, shearwaters, and penguins are all commonplace, as are NZ fur seals. One of the tours also takes you to the Motuara Island reserve for a one-hour nature walk.

Helpfully, this particular company times its tours to work in with the ferry schedules. This makes it a great way to spend a few hours if you have to check out of your hotel in the morning and are waiting for an afternoon or evening ferry. 

Go Sea Kayaking at Anakiwa

Just an hour’s drive from Blenheim via State Highway 6 (and 35 minutes from Picton), the small settlement of Anakiwa is home to some big experiences. 

First, it’s one end of the famous Queen Charlotte Track (more on that below). Secondly, Anakiwa is home to New Zealand’s Outward Bound School, one of 40 worldwide. Last but not least, it’s a great place to go kayaking in a truly stunning part of the world.

Sea Kayak Adventures caters for all ages and stages of experience, with half-day guided tours that are ideal for beginners, and full-day versions for those with a bit more experience and fitness. On these tours, you paddle around the pristine bays of the Queen Charlotte Sounds, with sandy beaches lined with native bush.

You’re likely to see forest and sea birds (including Little Blue Penguins) and occasionally even an orca or two. Kayak rentals are also available, if you’d prefer to do your own thing without the benefit of a guide.

If you’re up for a real challenge, Sea Kayak Adventures also offers overnight and multi-day guided sea kayak trips that let you explore the further reaches of the Sounds, stopping to explore beaches and bushland along the way. Sleep overnight at remote campsites (with food provided), or if you want a bit more comfort, your guide can book you into a lodge with a nice comfy bed instead. 

Walk the Queen Charlotte Track

Signposts pointing to cities around the world, at Eatwell's Lookout on the Queen Charlotte Track in New Zealand

The 70km Queen Charlotte Track is New Zealand’s most diverse coastal track. It wanders up and down hills and ridgelines, through dense native forests and coastal farmland, over swing bridges, and alongside pristine beaches and inlets. You’ll get spectacular views from the heights, and the chance to swim when you’re by the sea. 

The journey begins with a boat ride to historic Ship Cove, one of Captain Cook’s favourite stopping points. It stretches all the way to Anakiwa, with seven Dept of Conservation campsites along the way as well as private campsites, cabins, and motels for a more luxurious experience.

Many people walk the QCT over four days, though you can take longer if you like, or put in some big days and do it in three. Water taxis can transport your main bag between accommodations, and also let you do sections of the track as day or overnight hikes.

The track operates as both a hiking and mountain bike track, and more and more people are choosing to experience it by bike. It’s graded between intermediate (grade 3) and expert (grade 5) and is the longest continuous single track in New Zealand. It’s definitely not for beginners, and even intermediate riders often walk their bikes over the more challenging parts. 

Again, if you want to make it a day trip, you can book a water taxi or ride along the track from Anakiwa to Davies Bay (easy) or Onahau Bay. You need to be fit to tackle the hills on the return trip.

I walked (most of) the Queen Charlotte Track a few years ago, and absolutely loved it.

Take a Road Trip to Eat Mussels in Havelock

Plate of mussels with bread

Last time in was in Blenheim, I found myself with a day to spare and no particular plans. Asking my B&B owner for ideas, she immediately suggested a day trip to Havelock. Famous for its mussels, it’s about a 35 minute drive each way, if you take SH6 there and back. Which I’d highly suggest not doing.

Instead, turn the trip into a loop that takes in Queen Charlotte Drive, a stunning piece of road that turns off the highway just before Havelock, and hugs the coastline from there all the way to Picton at the other end. It’s only 35km from one end to the other, but expect to take an hour to drive it if you don’t stop.

You should stop, though, since there are several viewpoints along the way that provide epic photo opportunities. Some of them are only a minute or two from the carpark, others require walking for a while, but they’re all worthwhile.

It’s not just about the epic views, though. The road passes alongside several bays and beaches, including my favourite, Momorangi Bay. I spent a few glorious sun-filled days here under canvas with friends years ago, and still remember it as being one of the best summer holidays I’ve had in New Zealand.

Oh, and those mussels in Havelock? Yeah, they were great as well. There are a bunch of different places that sell them: the Mussel Pot is the most famous, but if it’s full, just pick anywhere else along the main road that appeals.


Main image via dmnapat/Shutterstock.com, grazing sheep image via patjo/Shutterstock.com, other images via author

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